REmblematic Bark Sets Record in Disappointing End to Sotheby’s Year

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 3rd December 2010

It was a disappointing night for the Sotheby’s franchise and its new Aboriginal art specialist D’lan Davidson.

Just 51 people attended its 30th November auction at which only 62 of 219 lots (or 28%) found a buyer on the night. By the time he published his official results the clearance rate had risen to 32 per cent by lot and 37 percent by value. With his predecessor, Tim Klingender, taking his contact list to Bonham’s in 2011, D’Lan Davidson’s first solo effort only fractionally exceeded the $617,000 achieved in Sotheby’s very first exclusive Aboriginal art sale in 1994. This leaves Davidson to begin building a department from the ground up, brick by brick, just as Klingender did more than 15 years ago.

The highlights of the night were the sale of a superb bark painting by the ‘Picasso of Arnhem Land’, David Yirawala, at a new record for the artist. ($64,800 incl. BP Lot 80). Other works to sell well were the cover lot by Ginger Riley Mundawalawala ($72,000 incl BP Lot 72) and an extremely attractive and underestimated 1992 work by Emily Kngwarreye (Lot 55) that sold for $60,000. A very early work on composition board by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa (Lot 6) attracted several bidders in the room. They were however disappointed when three phone bidders carried the price to $36,000. It was the only lot of the evening to reach its high estimate other than the Yirawala bark.

The signature pieces being deaccessioned from the highly renowned collection of the former NSW Democrat MLC Richard Jones all sold at or near their low estimates. Sotheby’s were saved by a single bidder, Rebecca Hewston. Her partner, Kahn Van Greken, belongs to a family of well known tribal art collectors with a primary interest in material from New Guinea and Oceania. The Van Grekens' are currently publishing a book that will accompany a traveling exhibition of their collection.

It was unfortunate that a similar saviour failed to appear for the collection of Sandra and Amanda Holmes. Despite their superb provenance, only three of the thirteen Yirawala barks sold on the night. While the record setting Kundaagi-Red Plains Kangaroo created in 1962 attracted four competing phone bidders the superior ceremonially significant Maralaitj- Mother of the North failed to attract bids anywhere near its $40,000-60,000 pre sale estimate. In all only 10 of the 46 works from the Holmes’ collection sold. Given their quality it was a clear indication that the collector base for high quality Aboriginal art had already been exhausted for 2010. This end of year sale contained too many pieces that would have been better saved for Sotheby’s primary mid year auction in 2011. I would not expect Sotheby’s to make the sale mistake twice. Though this sale included three works carrying estimates greater than $100,000, none attracted bids.

Collectors would have been alarmed at the results for the 41 acrylic paintings created post 1980. Only two of the Papunya paintings found a buyer despite their impeccable provenance. Not one of the Balgo Hills paintings sold. Overall, only a quarter of the paintings created between 1990 and 2010 attracted buyers. For auctioneer Tim Goodman it would have felt like pulling teeth.

It was a gloomy end to a year during which many commentators have been making doomsday predictions for the Aboriginal art market. They are however entirely wrong in their perceptions. If the boom years between 2004 and 2007 are discounted the Aboriginal art market continues to track along an incrementally increasing trajectory. Between 1994-2003 and then 2008-2010 it rose steadily from $617,000 to around $11 million. There will be a number of strategic changes made by several auction houses in 2011 given the recent announcement that Tim Klingender will reenter the market with 2 sales per year under the Bonham’s banner. Clearly 7 Tier One sales into $10-$12 million does not compute. Expect a number of major announcements early in the New Year!